After the horrific death of Father Jacques Hamel at the hands of Daesh supporters on Tuesday, a number of commentators pointed out that, theoretically, Father Hamel could become the first canonized saint to be martyred in Europe this century. Admittedly this is an extremely premature notion, since being named a saint by the Church can take quite some time, even centuries. I will not get into the technicalities involved in this process, which are best left to others more versed than I in such things. Yet Islamic terrorism aside, Christians have long been considered dangerous creatures by many in power, even in our supposedly more enlightened times.
Saint Jaume Hilari Barbal i Cosán (1898-1937) was born in the tiny village of Enviny in Catalonia, in the foothills of the Pyrenees. Today, the village boasts a population of only 27 people, plus a lovely Romanesque village church where the very devout Barbal served as an altar boy and discerned his vocation. He left for the seminary at the age of 12 but, plagued by hearing problems, he eventually had to drop out and return home.
In his late teens Barbal was able to join the Christian Brothers, and became a teacher in the schools run by that Order. He was particularly concerned with making sure that the poor received the best education possible, and with instructing his students in the catechism in order to provide them with a good moral and spiritual foundation. Unfortunately, Barbal’s hearing continued to deteriorate, until he finally had to give up teaching altogether. He then became the gardener for his Order’s House of Formation in Tarragona, a city about an hour south of Barcelona by train.
In July 1936, Barbal was traveling back to his home town of Enviny in order to visit his family, when he was arrested and charged with the crime of being a member of a religious order; he was then put on a prison ship along with other members of religious orders, where he was held awaiting trial. Barbal admitted to being a member of the Christian Brothers, even though technically by that point he was only working as their gardener rather than as a teacher, and in January 1937 he was sentenced to death. As he was led to his execution, it is said that he commented to the young men who made up the firing squad, “To die for Christ, my young friends, is to live.”
The volleys from the squad did not kill him at first, as it is claimed that at least some of the men fired wide on purpose out of guilt. In any case the squad dropped their weapons and fled, so the head officer personally shot Barbal five times at close range, in order to finish the job. Barbal thus became the first of 97 members of the Christian Brothers alone (not including other religious orders or secular clergy) who were executed by leftists in Catalonia between 1936-1938. As an aside, this incident should give you some idea of what the so-called democracy that existed in Spain before the Civil War actually looked like.
Perhaps if there had been more parishioners at the morning Mass, Father Hamel would not have been killed. Perhaps if the young men in the firing squad had restrained their commanding officer, St. Jaume Barbal would not have been killed. In either case, their deaths provide us with an opportunity to reflect on how very fortunate we are to be able to worship anywhere at all.
The barbarism that led to the killing of both St. Jaume Barbal and Father Jacques Hamel seems completely out of place in a civilized society, and yet here we are. We are extremely complacent, in Western democracies, when it comes to our religious freedom, to the point that we often take it for granted that we can worship or live out our vocations without fear of violence or retribution. As the lives of both of these men show us, Christian persecution in the West is by no means a thing of the distant past. It is still dangerous, after nearly 2,000 years, to try to preach and live the Gospel.